Montreal (8) vs. Boston (1): So they meet again. No teams have met more in the playoffs in NHL history, now a record 32 times. A year ago, the seeding was exactly the opposite and the season series was likewise reversed with the Habs sweeping before prevailing in seven games. This year, the Bruins are the top seed and were 5-0-1 against the Canadiens. They have a NHL-best seven 20-goal scorers, while the Habs sport but three. History may tug at this series in favor of the Canadiens in that they hold a 24-7 all-time mark over the B's and have won the last three meetings (2002, 2004 and '08). But the reality is that recent history and the Bruins depth and balance overrides the past. Bruins in six.
New York (7) vs. Washington (2): This is certainly a contrast in styles. The Capitals are young, energetic and precocious offensively. Alexander Ovechkin led the league with 56 goals and defenseman Mike Green had 31 -- more than any Ranger at any position. Add point-a-game producers Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin to the mix -- the first time since the 1995-96 Penguins had their top four scorers average at least a point a game -- and you can see the dynamic of this series: the Caps pushing the pace with the Rangers trying to keep it close.During the regular season, that didn't work as the Caps went 3-0-1 versus the Blueshirts. Even with the league's top penalty-killing and John Tortorella behind the bench, it won't work now, especially with the Rangers' sub-.500 record away from Madison Square Garden. Capitals in five.
Carolina (6) vs. New Jersey (3): They've played three times since March 18 and combined for 14 goals. The Hurricanes won the season series 3-1, losing the final meeting when they rested Cam Ward and got backup goaltender Michael Leighton some much needed work. Ward played 28 consecutive games, going 19-7-2, with a 2.30 GA, .922 save percentage and three shutouts. Yes, Mr. Ward was hot. Against the Devils, he was 3-0 and also had a playoff series win over them on his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy when the 'Canes won the Stanley Cup in 2006. The Devils had a remarkable season on many levels, so if I'm touting Ward without a mention of Martin Brodeur, you sense where I'm going with this. The 'Canes power play is amped right now and 7-for-16 against the Devils, who were poor on the PK at under 80%. It all adds up to too much Hurricane force. Hurricanes in six.
Philadelphia (5) vs. Pittsburgh (4): This is as good a first round matchup as there is, a repeat of last spring's Eastern Final in which the Penguins prevailed in five games. Interestingly, though, the Flyers have stayed the course with their team while the Penguins changed on the fly, inserting Dan Bylsma behind the bench in mid-February, trading defenseman Ryan Whitney to Anaheim for Chris Kunitz and acquiring Bill Guerin at the trade deadline. What hasn't changed is that Marc Andre Fleury continue to progress as an elite netminder. In March, he was 9-1-2 with a skimpy 1.87 GAA and a stout .938 save pct. He's on top of his game, and with all things being so even between these two teams, that's a distinct advantage. Plus, the Flyers failed to gain home ice advantage with a last game loss. In a series between bitter Atlantic rivals that, too, favors Pittsburgh. Penguins in seven.
Anaheim (8) vs. San Jose (1): The Sharks have built for this moment all season. The Ducks retooled and surged to the playoffs, winning a meaningful game down the stretch, 5-2 at San Jose -- the front end of a home-and-home on the second to last weekend of the season. The Sharks responded with a 3-2 victory the next night in Anaheim. All the games were hotly contested, with just 24 goals netted in the six-game series and three games featuring shutouts -- two by the Sharks' Evgeni Nabokov. The teams caught a break regarding travel with this matchup, but it will be a grind nonetheless. Still, the Sharks are in the here-and-now, while the Ducks are caught between then and somewhere in the near future. Sharks in six.
Columbus (7) vs. Detroit (2): The Red Wings are in the playoffs for the 18th consecutive season -- the longest current streak -- while the Blue Jackets are making their first postseason appearance. The teams split six games this season, but a couple of points stand out. First, the Red Wings' special teams dominated, scoring six times while only yielding two powerplay goals. Second, and most telling, after the CBJ's embarrassed them 8-2 in Detroit on March 7, the Red Wings responded with a 4-0 message eight days later. In the end, the Wings can play with the patience required against coach Ken Hitchcock's charges and have more talent to take advantage of the precious few opportunities afforded. Red Wings in five.
St. Louis (6) vs. Vancouver (3): These teams got full value out of the regular season. Everything from long-term injuries to star players and speculation on coaching changes took place. Yet, both endured and stood by coaches Andy Murray and Alain Vigneault respectively. The payoff is in an unlikely series. Each beath the other twice, once in the other's building, during the regular season. The deciding factor now will be the Canucks' superior ability to score at even strength while doing so aggressively without putting the Blues eighth- ranked powerplay on the ice too much. In that case, the Canucks can still lean on goaltender Roberto Luongo to provide the difference. Canucks in six.
Calgary (5) vs. Chicago (4): The Flames have only themselves to blame. They frittered away their division lead and must face the upstart Blackhawks on the road, where Calgary was under .500 and lost twice decisively in Chicago by 6-1 and 5-2 counts. Overall, the Blackhawks were 4-0 against the Flames, with goaltender Nik Khabibulin posting three wins. He has a good track record against the Flames, the most memorable being his backstopping the Lightning to the Stanley Cup in seven games over counterpart Miikka Kiprusoff. Throw in the fact that Chicago found its collective game down the stretch while the Flames' power play struggled and defensive stalwart Robyn Regher was out of commission. It all bodes well for the re-energized Hawks and their fans. This draw couldn't have gone much better. Blackhawks in five.
Carolina (6) vs. Boston (1): The Bruins owned the Hurricanes, winning all four games and outscoring them 16-5. That matters little here as they never faced the red-hot Cam Ward or the dominant Eric Staal, who finished with 29 points in the last 20 games of the regular season. In fact, the Bruins last faced the Hurricanes on February 17, well before Carolina re-established its game with captain Rod Brind'Amour playing so well and Erik Cole coming back into the fold. Call it easing up on the part of the Bruins, or just a plain ol' upset on the part of the Hurricanes. Either way... Hurricanes in seven.
Pittsburgh (4) vs. Washington (2): Billed as a battle between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, this match-up comes down to Fleury making a difference on the penalty kill, frustrating the Caps on their vaunted power play. Conversely, the Capitals' Jose Theodore struggles to shut down the revamped Pens PP attack. Yes, the stars will have their moments, but Jordan Staal provides a third line mismatch that the Caps can't answer. Penguins in six.
Chicago (4) vs. San Jose (1): This series features the two top Russian netminders in Nabokov and Khabibulin. Yet, during the season two of the tilts were 6-5 affairs. That's what this series is going to come down to: finding different ways to win games. Some will be high-scoring and some will be tooth-and-nail punctuated by timely saves. If you believe in the evolution of teams in sport, then this is the series in which the Sharks finally find a way to prevail when pushed, rather than yield. Sharks in seven.
Vancouver (3) vs. Detroit (2): With all of the Swedish--born talent in this series, there will be more eyeballs watching in Stockholm than in many North American locales. But this will be about Chris Osgood not being able to match Roberto Luongo in goal more than it will be about the Sedin twins acquiescing in the face of countrymen Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg. They are stars in their own right and besides, they have the leader of Swedish hockey on their side anyway in Mats Sundin. No, this series will finally erase the memory of Dan Cloutier giving the Red Wings life on a Lidstrom shot from center ice in 2002. Canucks in seven.
Carolina (6) vs. Pittsburgh (4): The 'Canes run out of magic and energy after a grueling series against the Bruins. This intriguing match up has brother Jordan shutting down the power-forward prowess of older brother Eric, providing the defining advantage in the series. Penguins in five.
Vancouver (3) vs. San Jose (1): It may have only been one game of 1,230 during the regular season, but the Canucks' 3-1 win over the Sharks on March 7 made this series win possible. Until that win, the Sharks had won the first three games -- after sweeping the Canucks the previous year. In fact, it was the first Canucks triumph over the Sharks in nearly two years, dating back to April 7, 2007. Call it karma or breaking a hex, whatever, with Mats Sundin equaling Joe Thornton in the middle and Luongo outdueling Nabokov in goal, the Sharks once again fall just short of their Cup quest, this time at the hands of the Canucks. Canucks in six.
Pittsburgh vs. Vancouver: Too many games and too much travel undo the Canucks' run to the Cup -- not to mention the Final exploits of Evgeni Malkin. His two points per game output earns him the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. The Canucks have little left after disposing of the top two seeds in the West on their way to their first Cup appearance in 15 years and only the third overall in franchise history. Penguins in five.